This inflammatory email has split the astronomy community in two

Thirty meter telescope hawaii
Artist’s rendering. TMT Observatory

A remote piece of land 14,000 feet above sea level, Mauna Kea, is one of native Hawaiians’ most sacred sites. It also happens to be one of the best places in the world to build a telescope capable of spotting parts of the universe no one has seen before.

And that’s exactly what the plan is: build a $US1.4 billion telescope, called the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT), on the sacred summit. Native protesters threw a wrench into that plan however, and brought the construction of the telescope to a grinding halt back in April.

Construction is postponed indefinitely, and the mountain top has become the site of a cold war between science and native culture.

As much as astronomers want to see the TMT built, many are torn over what it would mean to some natives. Some astronomers have condemned the telescope, saying scientists have no right to the land. Others argue that the scientific advances and the years that went into that will come from this telescope are more than enough to justify it.

The mostly private feud among astronomers reached a very public climax when University of California astronomers Alex Filippenko and Sandy Faber, sent out a mass email urging astronomers to sign a petition supporting TMT. The petition was actually written by a native Hawaiian science student, but Faber and Filippenko’s message was not well received.

Posts about the email have since been taken down, but some people took screen shots:

Yes, the email was real:

And the fallout was terrible.

Many astronomers called the message racist:

Some have said it’s not acceptable to ignore the concerns of a native people in the name of science:

Others have concerns about how it might influence native Hawaiian astronomers:

Faber and Filippenko did apologise. Not everyone was impressed though:

Sarah Ballard, an astronomer at the University of Washington, said there’s still “bitter contention” among astronomers.

Some are still very much in support of TMT:

In some ways the email has exposed racism inherent in TMT, Ballard said. It’s forcing astronomers to consider science culture’s long and complicated history — a history where it hasn’t always treated minorities fairly.

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